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6 Steps to Teach Any Skill

Posted in Teacher Tools on May 31, 2012 by

Photo by Orange42 on Flickr

Have you ever tried to teach a skill, then gotten frustrated at the process because nothing seemed to be getting through?

“It’s easy, let me show you. You just do this.”

“Like this?”

“No, not like that. Just do THIS.”

“Like this?”

“No! ARGH!”

Is it your fault for not being able to get through to the student? Or is it their fault for not understanding something that seems simple?

In most cases, it’s your fault.

To teach something successfully you need to know three things. 1) The material, 2) The student, and most importantly 3) The learning process. Most people who fail at teaching fail because of #3.

Knowing the material means that you can explain a difficult skill in a way that makes sense to other people. Knowing the student means that you know what the student doesn’t know and what they need to know. Knowing the learning process means knowing the necessary steps everyone needs to take in order to master a new skill.

The learning process includes the following steps:

  1. Exposure
  2. Application
  3. Feedback
  4. Correction
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 until…
  6. Mastery!

That’s it! There is no other way to master a new skill. To expect someone to master a new skill without going through these 6 steps is expecting the impossible and setting yourself up for failure.

The six steps of the learning process is not a new idea by any means. However, most people tend to forget about them when they teach. This is because the skill we are teaching seems so simple and intuitive to us that we assume the learning process is not necessary. We somehow get the idea that if we just demonstrate it clearly, something would click in the student’s head and voila! But unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to learning, unless you’re Neo from the Matrix.

In order to understand how the learning process functions, we need to understand how the brain works.

The brain learns by changing the synapses between neurons in the brain to create different neural pathways. This is essentially how the brain encodes information. The brain is constantly managing these pathways, adapting the brain to the world we are in. (Here’s a TEDtalk¬†that goes into more detail about brain plasticity.)

Things that you do everyday are considered to be “hard-wired” into your brain because those pathways have been strengthened over time. These apply to skills such as walking or eating. You no longer think about how to walk, you just do it.

When we first encounter a new skill, it seems very foreign to us. We don’t yet have the neural pathways in our brains to perform the skill. That is why our first time learning a new skill can often be an awkward and embarrassing experience. But this is a necessary step because that’s when our brains are creating the pathways that allow us to get better.

As we continue to practice the new skill, our brains automatically strengthen these new neural pathways. We start to perform the skill faster and more accurately and our progress accelerates. This is the principle behind the simple idea that the more you do something, the better you get at it. In fact, if you perform a certain skill enough, it can even physically change your brain. Evidence for this was discovered by a team at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, which found that the brains of professional musicians contained larger auditory complexes than the brains of non-musicians.

Most people who fail at teaching fail because they do not leverage the power of repetition. A clear explanation or demonstration is important, but it will not create the neural pathways necessary for performing the skill. Without repetition, all you have are weak neural pathways that will likely disappear over time. (This is a big problem with the current educational system. Because students are only required to have a superficial understanding of the skills they’re taught, they do not repeat the skill to a point of mastery.)

My advice to anyone trying to teach a skill is to understand how the brain works and to leverage the power of repetition. Give students the time they need to practice their skills until they have achieved mastery. Better yet, teach them how the learning process functions so they become better at learning how to learn.